Sunday, November 26, 2006

To dream the impossible dream; to fight the unbeatable foe

In one week, at 8:00 am, I will check in at the Women’s Epee Canadian Nationals 2006-2007. It has been suggested by some epeeists that I have no place at such a competition, and even my Coach has told the club and shouted at me less than a week ago that I am not a winner, and that I will NEVER be a winner. And reasonably, they are right. My goal is to reach the top 16 in the Nationals, and to reach the quarterfinals (maybe even number 1) of the 2007 provincials. These are not reasonable goals. I have no natural athletic ability; quite the opposite in fact: from high jump to track, from basketball and volleyball to archery there seems not one sport in which any amount of training developed the slightest promise. Next week, I may be the oldest competitor there. I almost certainly be the one newest to the sport (about 8 months). The chances of me even making the 30% cut out of the pools is slim to none.

On Friday, I did a series of “homework” footwork workouts, outside, in the cold, back and forth across the parking lot. One step and lunge all the way down the parking lot and back, two step and lunge, down and back, three step and lunge, across and back, bounce and lunge, and again. For periods during the workout my blood pressure went so high I become temporarily deaf (my resting heart after the cool down was still over 180 beats per minute). Then, later I went and did my 2.5 hours of fencing. I know that some of my opponents train longer than I do. But I cannot train harder. I only sleep through pain pills, and when they run out, I wake up, in agony. One night last week, at 4 am, I honestly believed, from the pain, that I was having a stroke. But when morning comes, I get up, and I train, knowing that my goal is, let us bluntly say it, impossible. So why?

Because for me, the dream is what enables the reality. If you want the raw naked truth; My life is one where some days or weeks simply breathing is a challenge; and if that is uncontrollable, then let it have meaning; the meaning I give it. Several years ago, I was bedridden for a time. Every time someone had to put on my socks, or help me try to stand, I would think, “I am going to run again. I am going to sprint again.” Every time I had to lie down after going from the kitchen to the living room I would swear, “I am going to run again.” And I did, some months later, with Linda watchfully beside me, jogging oh so slow. And in the last 100 yards, leading back to the car, I started to sprint (what to others would have been a jog), and Linda is yelling at me that I’m going to injure myself and I am laughing hysterically and crying at the same time. Because all those times in pain, lying there, I would imagine it, imagine what it would feel like and God, it hurt but it was real. Here I was, running again. Do you know what that means, to have it all taken away and win it back? So who is anyone to tell me what is and is not possible? I try because I dream, and until I try, how can I know what is possible?

Maybe that is Canadian, as certainly most of our country was mapped by people who were looking for the impossible. Or look at Terry Fox. Terry WAS a teenage athlete, and later went to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver to be a PE teacher, playing on the university basketball team. There, at 19, he was diagnosed with cancer in the right leg, resulting in it’s amputation above the knee. The night before his surgery, he read an article about an amputee who ran the New York City Marathon. Less than two years later, with a running leg constructed of a pogo stick and motorcycle shock absorber he started training. After his runs, his leg stump with be covered with sores and cysts. Still, after only 12 months of training on running with one leg he dipped his artificial leg in the waters at St. Johns and began his daily marathon in an attempt to run across Canada to raise money for cancer. His plan was 26 miles every day, for month after month, having to cross almost 6000 miles, in constant pain and slower than any two legged runner. His chances were, to put it bluntly, impossible.

His friend Doug Alward would drive the van ahead one mile, and hand him water when Terry arrived, before driving off. Terry became tired and irritable. They fought. Sometimes they would spend a day without talking. After two months of continuous running Terry Fox hit bottom. He swore and vented as drivers would force him off the road. He wondered if this was it: mental breakdown. It wasn’t. Arriving in Montreal, Terry and Alward were given a room at the Four Seasons, whose president had lost a son to cancer. It was their first day off after 73 days of running. From here, things would look up, as with his entry into Ontario, Terry was soon running into welcome bands, standing ovations and meetings with the Prime Minister. Many runners would join him, which he hated, because “I’m running on one leg. It may not look like I am running fast but I am going as fast as I can.”

He passed the halfway point across Canada at Sudbury but by this time, his health was poor. Often, he woke up tired, other times he would ask just to sit alone in the van so he could cry. But then he would get out and keep running. Three weeks later, on Aug 31st he stopped due to pain. The cancer was back and had spread to his lungs. The doctors gave him a 10% chance of beating the cancer. He had run 3,339 miles but would not let anyone try and finish his journey; he was going to come back. He died 10 months later, on June 28, 1981.

Terry Fox did not run across Canada; he failed. And yet, in trying, he got farther, and did more than anyone believed possible.

Linda has a notepad she writes me little love notes on, and on the bottom it has printed: “Success consists of getting up once oftener than you fall down.” And that pretty much sums up my complete athletic and other abilities. Many people make the mistake of thinking falling down is the same as failing. Falling is inevitable, but not getting back up is failing. Last week I went to a local fencing tournament and finished sixth out of seventh. A lot of people saw that as failure (and made sure I knew it). I considered the whole experience more valuable than if I came in second place. I fell, I understood why, and I got back up, determined not to fall that way again.

But couldn’t I fence without the pain, just take it down a notch? No. Why did Terry have to run a marathon every day, why not 20 miles, or 15, wouldn’t that have been easier? I train as I train because it is the most that I can endure. Because even miracles have a cost. Because the fastest way to get rid of the pain is to simply not get back up. And for some of us (many I believe), there is always the whisper, the temptation begging you to not get back up. My life as a success is defined not by how much or closely I win, but by getting back up. Sometimes that takes a week; sometimes it takes a month; sometimes two years; sometimes 10 years. But know this, I GET BACK UP. And when I walk away from fencing, be that in a month or a few decades, it will be with the knowledge that I tried as hard as I could under my human limitations. So next week, when I stand on that strip, facing one of the best in the world, I will not be hoping for a miracle. In ways that only God and Linda knows, simply being on that strip is a miracle; flinging myself into a lunge at their thigh with a scream of “Yahhhhh!” is simply finding out what is possible. As Terry Fox said in the news conference to announce the return of his cancer; “I just wish people would realize that anything is possible if you try. Dreams are made if people try.”


Jim said...

In some regards, many of your thoughts in this post are my thoughts. I am competing two weeks in my first North American Cup. I have no illusions on how I will do either. But, I am going.

One of my favorite Chinese sayings is as follows:

"An old STILL a tiger." It stands to reason then, " A sick or injured STILL a tiger."

As always, I am "pulling" for you Beth.

I am including my favorite fencing quote in this post as well. I have no idea why. It does not really relate, but I am doing it anyway. I thought about ti while I was writing, it must have SOME relevance.

Doesn’t everyone wish he could fence?.....It is violence refined into beauty, it has associations with love, honor and suicidal pride. We think of great fencers-unlike great footballers or junk-bond salesman-as superior beings: air and fire, rather than earth and water. We think of Cyrano, Zorro and the Three Musketeers.

James Traub GQ 1994

kathz said...

I heard story from one of the fencers at my club.

He was in his university epee team and they were on their way to a team event when one of the team became ill. Failure to make up the team meant instant disqualification. However, they were giving a lift to a young woman who had never fenced and somehow persuaded her to take the place of the sick team member, borrowed kit for her and tolds her just to hold an epee, stick her arm out, and see if she hit anybody. Of course, she didn't win any bouts but she scored some points. It ought to be impossible but, thinking about it, she had one advantage - nobody had any idea what she was going to next. It's not the same thing as you fencing as you've been training so hard. But I expect most of these fencers know each other and are accustomed to one another's tactics. You have a strategic advantage because you can take them by surprise, using tactics they don't expect and changing your methods suddenly. I used to get odd points at foil by playing timid and defensive for a a couple of points and then switching to attack, ideally just as my opponent was pursuing me down the piste. Combine unexpectedness with your training and phenomenal level of fitness and who knows what will happen. And, for the rest of your life, you're going to be able to say, "I fenced in the nationals." You're doing the right thing. Go for it!

By the way, regard that small tournament as a dress-rehearsal and remember the saying "The worse the dress-rehearsal, the better the show."

Cap'n Dyke said...

Me Dear AIT/PL, I don't have any stories for ye about winnin' against all odds, but I can say this -- I believe in ye. If anyone can do th'impossible, it be our Elizabeth!

BTW, ye made me cry into me grog, woman.

brianh said...

In the first clip, you raised your hand on the attack, exposing it to a counter-attack....please, follow the point to the target, don't throw it. Way too close in the second clip...use your length to your advantage.

Taper your training this week, with nothing but stretching and visualization Thursday and Friday. Don't try to learn anything new close to the competition. Ignore your coach's negativity. Don't try to kill your opponents.

Relax and enjoy yourself. It will be an eye-opener to be at your first big tournament, and you'll take home terrific memories.

(more unrequested advice, but I'm pulling for you to exceed your own expectations. Brian)

Anonymous said...

I'm pulling for you, too.


Sober @ Sundown said...

I am so happy for you! You are almost there.

I agree with BrianH where he recommends tapering your training. Don't head into the tournament exhausted, and for Gawd's sake put Mr. Ho out of your mind.

Looking forward to hearing all about your experience.

Yoga Korunta said...

You have tremendous courage, Elizabeth. Best at Women's Epee Canadian Nationals!

Elizabeth McClung said...

Thanks for the encouragement - due to snow closure, taking it easy this week has been taken out of my hands - I read this week that in sports often men duel while women dialogue/interplay - I'll have to get back to you on that one. Right now my major concern is: 1) Do not go insane before Sat/Sun and 2) Do not get snowed in on Sat/Sun

Anonymous said...

Um, no offence but you are taking it way too seriously, it takes time. I am a pretty good fencer and I dont mean to step on any dreams but you talk about all this persistance but maybe the real hard part is having some patience and common sence. You wont gain much by beating up your body and right now you need to learn and not worry about competition. Its not some big pitched emotional battle. All of that could help you have more self control which you need to fence well, right now you aren that good, just relax and enjoy yourself. you dont gain much with impatience

Good luck and have fun there

Elizabeth McClung said...

No offence, but, your pep rally could use some work - that whole "you aren't that good" stuff - mmmmm, yeah (you know you're not suppose to post here Mr. Ho). The whole point of individual path of sports is that - individual. I wrote this particular post so that others could understand mine - I think I pointed out there is very little "common sense" about the whole endeavor - and quite honestly, if I didn't have ups and downs, worries and despair, then I wouldn't particularly be interested in the sport - no passion.